Bishkek, the leafy capital of Kyrgyzstan, makes a pleasant entry or exit point, and Lake Issyk-Kul, a great inland sea and renowned beauty spot, is now open to the wider world after being a favourite haunt of Soviet rulers.
Many visitors will pass through quickly following the Silk Route from Kashgar to Uzbekistan, but for those with the time to look closer, horse trekking and yurt-stays offer access to pristine wilderness areas alive with eagle, deer, wolf and bear and the chance to experience a traditional way of life, unchanged over the ages.
The best language to know in Kyrgyzstan is Russian. A few words will go a long way and, as there is a large minority of Russians in the country, you will hear it spoken often. The Kyrgyz language has some similarities with Uzbek, though the two peoples often find each other incomprehensible.
Food & Drink
Kyrgyzstan's national cuisine revolves around lamb or horse meat and vegetables. Some of the best food in the country comes from the Dungans. Try in particular the excellent Dungan style laghman - flat noodle soup with chilli, vegetables and meat. Dumplings and samsa can also be found, as can the ubiquitous shashlyk. For vegetarians excellent salads and soups can be combined with local bread to make a decent meal.
For drinks there is, of course, chai - Central Asian tea. Vodka is drunk everywhere in Central Asia and nomads on the jailoos drink kumyss, the country's potent national tipple, made of fermented mare's milk. Russian beers are perhaps the best available - for quality go for Baltika.
In general tipping is not expected but in the larger international hotels in Bishkek western style is the norm so expect to pay a small sum to bell boys or cleaners. For guides and drivers in Central Asia tipping is a part of their salary and, though not compulsory, tipping is an excellent way to show your appreciation of their services.
Dressing conservatively is always wise in mosques or places associated with saints or nationally revered people. In Bishkek and Karakol there are large minority communities of Russians, making these cities' standard of dress somewhat more lax than elsewhere. The most conservative part of the whole country is Osh, close to the Fergana Valley.
The currency of Kyrgyzstan is the Som, though dollars are generally much more useful for purchases in hotels or shops. It is almost impossible to obtain Kyrgyz money outside of Kyrgyzstan. The best option for changing money is to do so as and when required through your guide who will usually help you to change money with local money changers - effectively the black market. Credit cards can be used in major hotels and it should be possible to get a cash advance on them through the national bank.
When to go to
Central Asia occupies the heart of the Eurasian land mass and is continental in climate, characterised by hot, dry summers and cold, bitter winters.
The summer months of July and August are extremely hot. This is when the bazaars are at their most bustling and is also the ideal season to explore the more mountainous areas, including much of Kyrgyzstan, where the high altitude winters linger long and block travel through high passes.
9 hours (via Istanbul)